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Monday, October 10, 2011

Guessing isn’t anticipating.

I was witness to a train wreck of a service encounter yesterday. A well meaning service provider was trying to go “above and beyond” in anticipating an unstated need of the customer in front of me. The customer was definitely not looking for the “perk” she was offered, and based on the interaction, was understandably taken aback. At best, she left annoyed and maybe slightly offended. At worst, the provider lost a customer.

What struck me is that the encounter would have been a success if the provider would have simply not tried so hard to guess what the customer wasn’t saying about herself.

Her efforts were met with a sour response because instead of anticipating her customer’s need based on knowledge, she guessed at what the customer wanted based on an incorrect assumption about her.

I’ve seen the popular literature that companies should just focus on the basics of the service customers expect and stop trying to “delight” them. Both notions are right and both are wrong.

A company is better off designing a customer experience that aligns with business strategy – their industry / market / customer expectations, their own business model, and who they are trying to be in their market. If you’re McDonalds or the local drycleaner, consistent execution on basics represents your market. If you’re Ritz-Carlton, a flexible service model that allows individuals to go beyond the minimum fits with service strategy.

But alignment of business strategy and service strategy wasn’t the problem in this case.

The issue was that while the provider, likely told by a supervisor to look for opportunities go above & beyond, tried to delight a customer based on a guess about that customer’s characteristics, based on appearance. Instead, she should have used certain knowledge about the customer to take a logical next step in providing what the customer needed. If that knowledge didn’t exist, then concluding the encounter providing only the basics would have been an acceptable outcome, and in fact much better than what happened.

Lawyers subscribe to the notion of never asking a question to which they don’t know the answer. Similarly, when trying to delight a customer, do so in anticipation of a need based on certain knowledge. Not one based on a potentially faulty assumption.

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